Friday, April 5, 2013

E is for Error Messages

Translation: I've screwed up and you've just lost your afternoon's work.

Usually followed by that smug little "OK".

No, it's flippin' well not OK!

As an application developer, the best thing to do is to make sure these little beauties don't happen in the first place, of course. But, equally of course, computers will screw up from time to time, and when they do, the least you can do is make sure they do so gracefully.

So it's...

NO - to the cryptic techno-babble that the average end user won't even begin to comprehend.

NO - the end user will not want to debug the code. Don't even go there.

NO - the end user should not be left in limbo wondering what they should do next, or panicking that they've single-handedly brought the company system to its knees.

Things you can do

If possible, notify the help desk - behind the scenes - and log the technical details of the error somewhere a technical support person can get at them. The previous company I worked for used these measures very successfully. Often, by the time the user reported trouble, we were already working on a solution.

Keep the mumbo jumbo out of the visible message and instead tell the user what they should be doing next. Don't just leave them hanging. If you need them to stop work and report it, say so. If it's OK to log back in again and resume work, say so.

These are all talking about where the application chokes out of control. Then there's a whole class of errors that the end user will trip up over in the normal course of their work. Typing the wrong thing into a field, for example. These things should be detected by the application and the user informed in a way that is helpful and meaningful. Don't just spit out "Invalid input," say why it's not valid and what is expected instead.

Going the extra mile in handling errors will pay dividends in user satisfaction, and the extra effort in design and programming will repay you handsomely in the workload on your help desk.


  1. We had a fabulous bunch of guys and girls on the help desk where I used to work....I used to start off with..."I have checked all my wires and they are all attached properly..I have shut down and started up...I have reset the modem...I have bypassed the router...yes I shut it down again just for where do we go from here.

  2. My work terminal has a nasty habit of going very slow, freezing or throwing crazy error messages at me.
    The official line is "dont automatically reboot,ring the help desk before doing anything"
    So after 20-30 mins on hold, usually the first thing the help desk will tell you to do is..yep, reboot.

  3. Just seeing that error message in your post made me cringe. I hate those things. I'm pretty sure they are the product of one of those lower levels of darkness.

  4. When I was in college, I'd left a debug message for myself in the code, completely forgetting it was there. I turned in my project without commenting it out. The reason I'd forgotten about it was because the condition I'd created the message for never occurred and so, it never displayed, reminding me of its existence.

    The error message was:

    "You've managed to get here, dummy."

    My instructor docked me a letter grade for that. lol

  5. Delores, sounds like you were a model customer. Luckily I've always had pretty savvy users. The errors I used to deal with came from the application itself, and definitely not something they could do anything about.

    Mynx, the reason for that is probably so as not to destroy vital diagnostic evidence sitting in memory. Makes sense, but only if a tech is going to follow up immediately. Usually we say try a reboot, if that doesn't work, then call us and show us what's happening.

    Jean, these make me cringe too. I don't think anyone knows where the really come from :)

    Diane, I probably left a few of those lurking, too! Not quite as bad as the programmer in a bank who ended up sending a mailing list of wealthy clients a letter beginning, "Dear Rich Bastard,"

  6. "No it is not ok!" That is such a great response! I hate those error messages. Glad I don't see them very often. At least lately they come up with a cute little "Oh Snap!" and funny little face so you aren't quite so upset by it all when something fails to work properly!

    Happy E day--hope yours isn't filled with too many error messages!

  7. I'd rather deal with Windows error messages all day long than try to figure out why something is not working on an Apple.

  8. I so lurvs the guinea pigs (referring to your About Me). I had them as pets for years and miss them.

    Popped by from the AtoZ Challenge.

  9. Thanks for giving me inspiration for my letter Q for Quality Assurance. lol

  10. As an end user, I have to say you're right. No, I would not want to debug the code lol!

  11. Ornery's Wife, I find cute gets irritating pretty quickly too. In a work context, I say keep it polite and professional and free of geek :)

    Michael, at home I turn all the figurin' out to my wife! My posts are more aimed at business software, where is is absolutely NOT the user's job to figure out why something is not working. IMHO, anyway :D

    Tami, I'm more of a cat person, but the guinea pigs are cute.

    Diane, glad you found some inspiration! I'm going to post about quality too!

    Angela, right on!

  12. Not that I don't get my share of "troubles" with my Mac, but not having those little blue boxes is a relief...oh yes, we have issues too - but I'm happy to say I have encounter very few.

    That being said...I'm a huge fan of the daily back up which I think is so under done these days. However, I'm not a technician, I leave the serious tinkering to my boys (and one awesome gal) at my local Apple store's Genius Bar.

    Great E post.

  13. Hi Ian,

    Gave me a bit of a rush when I finally visited you and checked out your latest letter in that amazing alphabet challenge and I saw that error message! Anyway, thanks for your insight. Phew...

    Have a good weekend, eh.

    Gary, your cordial host at the alternate alphabet challenge! :)

  14. Oooh! I hate that! See, this is why I have a husband who's super amazing with computers. Otherwise, I might have a pile of rubble rather than a functioning monitor and computer tower. =)

  15. Jenny, I'm not really a technician either, not since everything got too complicated to debug the operating system with an assembler.

    Gary, sorry to startle you! Hope you're enjoying the Alternative Challenge - must pop over to your blog and see what you're up to.

    Crystal, sometimes I think a pile of rubble would be more useful :)

  16. Bravo--because the user just wants to use-- not fix, design, rewrite, rebuild. lol. Excellent, Ian. :-)

  17. Hi Ian .. customer service is really what it is isn't it .. if we can have some concept of what's going on - we don't worry. I have to say I've learnt to stand back, switch off and start again and see what happens, or to work my way round another route ..usually it works ...

    Cheers Hilary

  18. Hi Ian..I prefer fixing my computer myself...although I am not an extraordinary technical person...but I have somehow managed to handle all its errors so far...luckily for me.


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